For someone who has won a grand slam just over two years ago, it’s quite odd how underrated and under the radar Marin Cilic often is.
The Croatian world No10, who could guarantee himself a spot at the ATP World Tour Finals if he reaches the final of the Paris Masters this week, is quiet and unassuming – a stark contrast to the persona of his former coach Goran Ivanisevic, who spent four years working with Cilic and helped him win the US Open in 2014.
Cilic, parted ways with Ivanisevic in July and hired Swedish ex-world No4 Jonas Bjorkman as a replacement. He claimed his first Masters 1000 crown in Cincinnati in August and added a second title to his 2016 tally in Basel last Sunday.
Bjorkman was not there to witness his charge triumph in Switzerland, nor is he in Paris this week.
The 44-year-old, who coached Andy Murray for eight months last season, is actually in Dubai, where he is available for private coaching lessons at the Habtoor Grand hotel until November 5.
Bjorkman has been unable to accompany Cilic at tournaments recently due to commitments made prior to them teaming up, but they will reunite in London, should Cilic qualify for the November 14-20 season finale, and will be working together full-time from the start of 2017.
Bjorkman agrees that Cilic does not attract the kind of attention you’d expect a major champion to get but admits that coinciding with the era of the ‘Big Four’, it’s hard to make a name for yourself in men’s tennis, “because the other guys have been so successful, even when you win a slam, it’s a lot harder to become a more well known name on the circuit”.
The Swede says they have big goals they hope to achieve together and feels they are all attainable.
“I think for sure Marin wants to win more slams,” Bjorkman told Sport360° at the Habtoor Grand.
“I think just at the moment we all see that when he’s playing his best tennis, he can beat anyone. But it’s all about the consistency. I think that’s the improvement Marin needs to do. To have weeks where you maybe don’t play your best tennis but still survive the first couple of rounds and then you start to play better towards the end of the week or the slam.
“That’s all about extra practice to maybe get this percentage of first serve a little bit higher. He’s now maybe around 50 per cent, he has such a massive serve and I do think that if he gets to over 60 he will intimidate the players a lot more which would put even more pressure for the guys to play him.”
The action on tour heats up considerably in Paris this week, where seven players can still mathematically clinch one of the two remaining spots in London, while Murray has a chance of replacing Djokovic as world No1.
Bjorkman believes a change at the top can be good for the sport and says it can have a positive effect on the rest of the field.
“I think mentally it gives all the other guys a feeling that it’s possible that they could be the one to take that step up,” he says.
“Roger has been injured, Rafa now is injured, so obviously the guys feel that there’s an opportunity there.
“With Andy and Novak, I think it’s great for the game, I think they still will be the two who will dominate for quite some time in the next couple of years, I think they are at the peak. I think for Novak after Paris, he sort of got to the goal, he achieved everything. I think mentally he got to the stage where he felt accomplished a little bit and I think now he has to find new ways to get the motivation for new goals.
“Andy has been on track. So I think for both of them, for Novak it’s great that Andy’s coming up there, that gives him the motivation that he needs because he’s been more or less too dominant for a year and a half, so I think they’re going to help each other.
“I think it’s great for the game, for us who have been watching it. It’s great when someone’s dominating but it’s also much more fun when it’s more unpredictable how the tournament is going to go.”
The nine-time grand slam doubles champion reflects fondly on his short time on Team Murray but concedes it was a high-pressure job.
“It was a great experience to be part of Andy’s team. I’ve known him for a long time but still it was great to see the desire and the goal he has to achieve what he wants,” added Bjorkman.
“I’m not surprised that he’s playing this well this year. Because he’s been really putting all that work in. Obviously it’s a little bit different (working with Andy) because with his status in the UK, I think right now you probably don’t have anyone who is bigger than him when it comes to sport. If you look to track and field or football… I would put him up as the highest profile out there.
“Obviously with that, it gives even more pressure for him, but also for the whole team. But it was a great experience. And I’ve learned a lot from what I can come in and hopefully try to help Marin to achieve his goals and dreams.”
Bjorkman has known Cilic since the Croat was 16 years old as he was offered to the Swede by Bob Brett as a practice partner at Brett’s academy in San Remo.
Now 28, Cilic perhaps belongs to a generation that may not get a chance to taste dominance when the ‘Big Four’ are out of the picture. At that point, it seems the younger crop will have emerged to take over.
“It’s an interesting question. It takes some time I think to get the experience to be up there and dominant,” said Bjorkman. “You have a couple of guys who have been very consistent like Kei (Nishikori), Milos (Raonic), who still on the way up I would say, but Key has been there, so you have a few guys who will probably be more experienced and ready to take over but the young guns you never know because with their mentality, they don’t think too much, they just want to win every match and it could be that they could be mentally ready as well.
“With Marin, from winning that big one, it always comes with a lot of pressure after that. And I think with the experience he has had now for the past couple of years, if we can get to the next level in his game and be more consistent, I think mentally he could be ready to also be in the hunt of being more up in the top-five or six.”
Several youngsters have already stepped up recently like the 23-year-old Dominic Thiem who is already a top-10 player, owns seven titles and is in contention for the ATP Finals in London. But the Austrian has mismanaged his schedule this season – he has played 80 matches in 2016 – and has run out of steam in the second half of the year.
The 21-year-old Nick Kyrgios and 19-year-old Sascha Zverev are ranked No14 and 21 respectively, and have both claimed titles this season, three for the former, and one for the latter. The 22-year-old Lucas Pouille has made waves as well, capturing a trophy in Metz, and reaching the quarter-finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open.
Speaking of the younger generation, Bjorkman said: “I think Zverev has already been coming very far with consistency, not many bad weeks the last five or six months.
“I think Kyrgios has taken a big step this year, he’s also been playing a lot more consistently. We’ve already seen his potential but it was a little bit more up and down but I think he’s getting better and better each season. So I think those two probably have impressed me the most, I think they’ve been sort of the next two to maybe come up there.
“Thiem is already in the top-10, but maybe both him and his team didn’t expect him to go that quick up to the top-10 so the scheduling was already done and it’s difficult to pull out. I know his coach Gunter (Bresnik) as well and with him, once you’re committed, you’re committed. And when you’re young and you pull out of tournaments it’s all about relationships with tournaments as well, so I think they felt they had to stick to the plan and he ran out of steam a little bit. But we’ll see what happens.
“He’s still in good position of making London which would be a phenomenal effort I would say, at such a young age and already making the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 would be something that he will learn a lot from. He has a good chance of winning a lot matches as well but I think the whole experience will take him to the next level next season.”
Kyrgios has made huge strides in 2016, but has also suffered from disciplinary issues and is serving a suspension after tanking a match in Shanghai last month.
Bjorkman did not see the match so is unable to comment on the ATP’s decision to suspend the young Aussie, but believes it will prove an important life lesson for him.
“In the long-term, I think it will help Nick in a way,” he said.
“Because I’m so convinced with the game he has, it’s a great game to watch, he’s a massive talent, potentially super-high, and he’s going to be up there. When you’re young you always learn from your mistakes so I think he’ll learn from this and be ready to take the next step as well.”
The WTA 2016 season officially wraps up this week with the Elite Trophy Zhuhai, which is the eighth tournament on the women’s circuit that takes place in mainland China.
The tour’s expansion in the country had been high on the agenda of former WTA CEO Stacey Allaster, who was replaced a year ago by Steve Simon, and it resulted in a total of 10 events staged throughout the year across mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – two of which are quite significant in status.
Beijing hosts a $5.4m Premier Mandatory tournament (the second-highest tier just under the WTA Finals tour-ending championships), while the city of Wuhan is the venue for a $2.3m Premier 5 event (third-highest tier).
The Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open came to life in 2014, when the tour relocated a Premier 5 tournament from Tokyo to the Chinese city. It is owned by the sports and entertainment agency, Octagon, and was leased for 15 years to Wuhan Sports Development Investment Co.
Other Premier 5 events are hosted in major cities like Montreal/Toronto, Cincinnati, Dubai/ Doha, and Rome. When one thinks of a big city in China, Wuhan is not necessarily the first (or even 10th) name that springs to mind. So how, and why, did Wuhan end up staging such an important tennis tournament on the women’s tour?
The answer traces back to three things: Li Na, massive investment, and an ambition from the city itself to elevate its status within China as well as globally. Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province with a population of 10 million people, is the hometown of Li Na, Asia’s first and only singles grand slam champion.
When discussions started in 2012 between Octagon and the Wuhan municipal government, Li Na had just won her first slam, at the 2011 French Open, was ranked No 5 in the world, and was the second-highest paid female athlete on the planet.
Unfortunately for organisers, Li Na ended up retiring, due to recurring knee injuries, in September 2014, just before the start of the first edition of the Wuhan Open.
A total investment of $225million had been made into building the state-of-the art tennis facility, that includes a 15,000-seat centre court, in Wuhan’s developing Optics Valley area. They got the tournament and had built the facilities but there was no Li Na.
“When the discussion started in 2012, Li Na was an active player, at the top of the rankings and everybody envisioned to see her playing on home soil. The story ended up being different, and that’s fine, that’s the way it is, and it was obviously a big motivation,” co-tournament director Fabrice Chouquet told Sport360 at the Wuhan Open last month.
“Everybody knew that Li Na wasn’t going to play for another 10 years, so it’s also her legacy to have this event.”
In a way, parallels can be drawn between Wuhan hosting this event, and Dubai staging an ATP tournament for the first time back in 1993. Just like Dubai wanted to place itself on the world sports map and gain recognition across the globe through international tennis, Wuhan is attempting to achieve the same today.
“Having such a big event in Wuhan is a major development for the city. Through these sports events the city is growing its image, it’s more known around the world and tennis is a fantastic vehicle for that because you receive at this level of events an immediate worldwide exposure,” added Chouquet.
“It’s putting Wuhan in the elite group of cities who are hosting a major sports event and a major tennis event. The other Premier 5 events are cities like, either Toronto or Montreal, Rome, Doha or Dubai and Cincinnati, so they’re major cities in North America, Europe or the Middle East. So Wuhan gets into that club.
“It’s a branding exercise for the city and it’s a way to develop and get a new status within China as well. When you compare it with Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, all these cities that have significant status, Wuhan wants to raise its status to belong to that club as well.”
It is understandable that Wuhan still has a long way to go when it comes to attracting a big live audience. The tournament has only been around for three years, the stadium is located in a developing area that is far from the city centre, with the metro yet to reach it, and locals don’t necessarily have the tennis culture embedded in their DNA.
Chouquet admits that attendance is one of the biggest challenges the tournament faces.
“An event of that level with the size of the centre court that we have, we are very objective. We know that we’re not going to fill 15,000 seats at every session of this tournament, that would be unrealistic, it’s impossible. So we want to set reasonable objectives that we can achieve. We want to build the fanbase and it takes time,” said the Frenchman.
WTA CEO Steve Simon agrees that increasing the number of spectators in events like the Wuhan Open is tough.
“I think the education that we’re working with them on is getting them to take this from just a competition to it becoming an event and learning to not just copy what’s being done somewhere else – big stadium, big players, all of that – you’ve got to create the environment that the fans want to come.
“Many of these fans aren’t familiar with tennis, so we need to create all of the activities and experiences around the event that will bring them to it.”
For the time being, how much does the image of empty seats broadcast on TV hurt the WTA?
“Empty seats are never good. It’s a challenge every week because there’s many times where the event is actually very well-attended but they’re everywhere else out on the grounds, it’s the nature of tennis. It’s an ongoing issue that we have for sure,” said Simon.
“It’s not going away tomorrow, and with the exception of only a few events, I see a lot of empty seats and it isn’t a true reflection of what the attendance is as well. It’s something we have to figure out how to deal with. Some of it may be working with television and saying ‘okay, if the stadium is empty, why are you going to the high shot? Keep it tight on court, watch the tennis. Why are you going and showing me the beauty shot?’.”
Besides attendance, Chouquet says one of the main challenges moving forward would be to attract more international partners. With such a massive investment made into new events, breaking even, let alone making a profit “will take a few years that’s for sure” he admits.
“The city of Wuhan and this area of Optics Valley is a developing area, it’s like a new town sort of. In the city, there is construction all over the place, whether buildings, roads or public infrastructure. It’s a booming city, it’s just transforming, the slogan ‘Wuhan, different every day’ cannot be more true. The city has engaged into a programme of getting new infrastructure. So the city is investing in all these facilities and the return on investment will take a long time because the investment is massive,” he says.
One thing the tournament has been keen on is developing tennis within Wuhan and spreading the culture of the sport in the process. Li Na sparked a tennis revolution in China when she became a major champion and a quick look at the rankings shows there are four Chinese women in the top-100, 10 in the top-150, and 17 in the top-300.
The Wuhan Open runs several community initiatives like an amateur City League Club, that engages 3,000 players in 20 Chinese cities, with the finals of the league taking place on-site during the tournament. They also hold a competition for university students, who also get to showcase their talent on the sidelines of the Wuhan Open.
China’s top player at present, world No 28 Zhang Shuai, believes staging so many tournaments in her home country has helped her in many ways.
“A few years ago, I always played qualies at big tournaments, we didn’t have the chance to play big tournaments at home,” said Zhang. “Now we’re so lucky to be able to get some wildcards, some young players have the chance to play big tournaments. They can watch great players play. Before, it was tough to get points and tough to improve our rankings. Now we have a lot of tournaments and we can play. There are a lot of people coming to watch. I feel very lucky I’m still on tour to see this happening.”
With the WTA establishing itself strongly in the China marketplace, is the tour going to continue to expand in the region?
“One of the things that’s important to me is not to over-saturate the market,” said Simon. “I don’t believe in piling on. We’ve had a lot of success but I wouldn’t see myself adding more events to this market unless we can see that the event would enhance the values and the investments that are already being made here.
“I think that in all markets we could use more pathway events, in the development of talent for our future, investment in the future in developing markets, but not at the larger scale. So I want to respect the markets as well. But the balance to me is the key.”
One event, two men, and a fight for the No1 ranking – that’s what we can look forward to this week at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris-Bercy.
Add to that the fact that seven players are still mathematically in contention for the remaining two ATP World Tour Finals spots in London and we could get one of the most exciting Paris Masters we’ve had in recent years.
Maybe it’s just me, but the word ‘exciting’ is not necessarily the word you’d typically associate with the Paris Masters. It’s so late in the season, with only one week separating it from the season finale at the O2 in London and so often you can expect high-profile early exits or withdrawals.
This year is different though with lots on the line for many of the players. Andy Murray, riding a 15-match winning streak, is a mere 415 points behind Novak Djokovic in the ATP Race to London and the Scot could leave Paris as the new world No1 for the first time in his career, having spent a total of 76 weeks in the No2 position.
Murray is carrying some incredible momentum, and has been the in-form player of the past six months. He has won his last three straight tournaments, in Beijing, Shanghai and Vienna, and is tied with Djokovic as the players with most titles captured in 2016, having each captured seven trophies. Djokovic on the other hand is title-less since Toronto in July, and has admitted to some mental fatigue and lack of motivation.
The way the Serb has described his current struggles, it almost sounds like he’s painting a bleaker picture than there actually is. He had personal problems that might have affected his early loss at Wimbledon, he won Toronto, had a terrible first-round draw in Juan Martin del Potro at the Olympics, lost a close one to Stan Wawrinka in the US Open final, then fell to a fired up Roberto Bautista Agut in the Shanghai semis. Add wrist and shoulder injuries to the situation and you’ll find that Djokovic is far from being in crisis-mode.
Murray breathing down his neck in the rankings could actually fuel Djokovic’s desire in this home stretch of 2016. With no indoor matches under his belt, Djokovic opted to play doubles alongside his compatriot Nenad Zimonjic on Monday night in Paris (they lost to Halys/Mannarino), and he is clearly serious about his title defence in the French capital this week.
On his part, Murray is staying realistic about his chances of replacing Djokovic as No1.
“I can obviously try and win my matches, but even if I win all of my matches this week, I still might not get there,” the reigning Wimbledon champion told reporters in Paris on Monday.
“So it’s in Novak’s hands. He’s ahead obviously just now, so if he wins his matches and gets to the latter stages of the last two tournaments, then he’ll most likely keep the No1 spot.
“I don’t feel any differently now to how I did kind of six, eight weeks ago. My goal wasn’t to finish as No1 at the end of this year. I wanted to finish this year as strong as possible and I think there is a lot stronger chance of doing it in the early part of next year, which is what I targeted rather than this week.”
Meanwhile, a host of players are looking to join Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, and Gael Monfils in the elite-eighth season finale in London.
Contenders Dominic Thiem, David Goffin and freshly-crowned Basel champion Marin Cilic are all in the top half of the Paris draw while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Lucas Pouille and Roberto Bautista Agut are in the bottom.
If I had to pick two of those to play in London, I’d probably pick Pouille and Tsonga simply based on the fact that their style of play and flair would fit nicely with the atmosphere at the O2. Is three Frenchmen in London though too much for the tournament to handle? Who knows…
I would have gone for Thiem had this been a tournament in the first half of the season. The Austrian unfortunately mis-managed his schedule in 2016 and has run out of steam. This will no doubt prove a life lesson for him for the future.
Race to London:
Seven players can clinch one of the two remaining ATP Finals spots. Here’s how they can guarantee qualification:
Dominic Thiem – Must reach the Paris final
Marin Cilic – Must reach the Paris final
Tomas Berdych – Must win the title
David Goffin – Must win the title
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – Must win the title and other players’ results must go his way
Roberto Bautista Agut – Must win the title and other players’ results must go his way
Lucas Pouille – Must win the title and other players’ results must go his way